Written by: Ben Wheatley, Amy Jump
Directed by: Ben Wheatley
Starring: Neil Maskell, MyAnna Buring and Harry Simpson
Reviewed by: Brett Gallman
Kill List is kind of like an onion to me, in more ways than one. It left a pretty bad taste in my mouth, and I can’t really say I liked the film very much; however, as I examine it more, I find myself peeling layers off of it, revealing some interesting depth in imagery and themes that at least make it more admirable than most movies I don’t take to. This is one of those films where I can see the underlying thematic points being drawn out, but I’m not sure they all get connected in satisfying fashion, even as I was predicting exactly where the story was going to end up.
That Kill List becomes so predictable is rather remarkable because it begins rather opaquely, with a small dinner party among friends. Ex-soldier Jay (Neil Maskell) and his wife, Shel (MyAnna Burning) are the hosts, with Gal (Michael Smiley) and his girlfriend (Emma Fryer) also attending. We’re treated to a fly-on-the-wall’s take on these low-key proceedings that soon turn hostile when Jay flips his shit in a sequence that felt like the dysfunction of Rob Zombie’s Halloween funneled through an affluent Irish family (which is hardly the best thing to be reminded of). This is followed up by some cryptic conversations between Jay and Gal about doing some local work, and, after about half an hour, we finally realize these guys are hitmen. They’re also mixed up with a mysterious cadre orchestrating their moves, and they’re unwittingly sent down a destructive rabbit hole that could destroy them both.
If Ben Wheatley’s goal with it is to dig in under your skin, then crawl around in your brain, then I’ll say he succeeded, and I do find it interesting that he does so in an unexpected fashion. Kill List is hugely violent and visceral, and there’s a level of casualness to it that’s inherently disturbing. But while the image of Jay bludgeoning a guy’s head to a bloody pulp will be hard to purge, I think the headier stuff underlying the film is more intriguing in retrospect. I’ve seen plenty of these excursions involving ne’er-do-wells biting off even more than they can chew; in fact, some of this reminded me of Boondock Saints, albeit with a real rugged Irish sensibility. It’s also a story about a couple professional types with an odd moral code--they have no problems callously shooting priests in the head, but they stumble upon a plot that sickens even them, and the film expectedly hits some vigilante beats.
Again, those beats are pretty routine, but Kill List’s proleptic tract makes it a bit more rewarding. As dry as those early sequences are, they’re also sprinkled with some eerie foreshadowing and imagery that’ll eventually recur. At first blush, the film seems to take a hard left turn at the end, where we’re suddenly plopped into a sinister plot that feels like it wandered off of a 1970s Hammer set. And, if you know me, you’ll also know that such material hits a soft spot that’s appealing; when stuff veers into occult territory, it registers with me in a Pavlovian way, so Kill List finally started to work for me during the last 20 minutes or so. Upon reflection, it does earn the narrative turn--there are hints of it strewn throughout the build-up, and there’s a subtle thread involving religion that functions as interesting thematic weight. The aforementioned encounter with the priest is an obvious one, but the nature of religion is discussed among the characters, plus Jay lashes out at a group of people singing “Onward Christian Soldiers”; that he eventually gets ensnared by something overtly pagan after all of this seems to be playing at some sort of deeper meaning to all of the carnage. We’re left with a rather bleak outlook on things--here’s a guy who refuses to believe in god but still can’t escape the devils.
Said devils could be literal or not; there’s a chance that he’s just suffering from post-traumatic stress from his experiences in war and that everything he thinks he’s experiencing is some kind of paranoid projection. He’s a bad man who did some bad things while he was off to war, and he either thinks karmic forces will catch up to them--and maybe they do. Kill List has some very interesting things to chew over, and I wish I felt more compelled to give it another look to be sure. But, an onion is an onion, and the bad taste supersedes a lot of this stuff; I found it hard to get past the wholly unlikable characters and their bizarre interactions. I lost count of how many times they’d be at each other’s throats in one scene and then coddling each other in the next; something about it all feels inauthentic, as if it’s trying too hard to make us sympathize with its vile lead characters. The ending hinges on that sympathy, I think; as disturbing as it is, it’s also predictable for anyone who has recently seen another infamous movie (that I won’t specifically mention--to do so would give away the ending to Kill List). When all is revealed, I don’t know that Jay has built up enough good will for me to think he doesn’t deserve his fate, and, if he does deserve it, this is just another trip down a well-worn nihilistic path.
Wheatley has buried an interesting film down in here, somewhere; I’m not a big fan of the handheld/faux-docu style he brings, particularly since it’s done in a scope ratio--such a pairing seems at odds to me, and it only works here once he hits the suffocating ground level for the intense climax. Otherwise, this is a bit of roughly-shot affair with some occasional neat editing tricks (which, again, seemingly conflicts with the intimate, handheld style). Ultimately, Kill List is one of those frustrating films that leaves me pondering certain things, but it never feels like something that would be enjoyable enough to revisit. You can currently check it out on VOD platforms, but I’d suggest waiting for IFC to bring it to disc, where it will likely be subtitled--I had some real problems understanding some of the dialogue thanks to the thick accents, which possibly rendered the film even more opaque at times. Kill List has been well-liked by most genre fans, and there’s maybe even a good chance I’ll be a fan upon a revisit--I hate to hedge my bets like that, but my initial reaction is that it’s a film whose brutally violent spectacle and pulpy twists drown out the more interesting subtexts. Rent it!
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